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National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme

The NHS wants to help you stay healthy and well, by preventing serious disease where possible and by diagnosing any illness as early as possible. The national bowel cancer screening programme is in place to catch bowel cancer at an early stage, to improve patients' outcomes. This page explains what bowel cancer is, how the screening programme works, and why we would like you to take part in the programme.

Cancer screening saves lives

Bower cancel is the general term that we use for cancers that begin in the large bowel. Depending on where the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. Bowel cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed types of cancer in the United Kingdom. Most people who are diagnosed are over 60 years old.

The 3 main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny
  • persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss

Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. For example:

  • blood in the poo when associated with pain or soreness is more often caused by piles (haemorrhoids)
  • a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually caused by something you've eaten
  • a change in bowel habit to going less often, with harder poo, is not usually caused by any serious condition – it may be worth trying laxatives before seeing a GP

These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.

Not everyone with bowel cancer has these symptoms. If you do have any of these symptoms do not wait to get a home test - contact your GP immediately.

Read about the symptoms of bowel cancer

It is very important to find bowel cancer early so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. This is why Public Health England runs the national bowel cancer screening programme. Under this screening programme people in England aged between 60 and 74, who are registered with a GP, are sent a home bowel cancer screening kit every 2 years.

The bowel cancer screening test does not diagnose bowel cancer, but it's a simple way to find out if you need further tests.

Your risk of bowel cancer increases as you get older, so NHS bowel cancer screening is offered to people aged 55 or over.

The bowel cancer screening kit is sent your home, so make sure your GP has your correct address so your kit is posted to the right place.

  • if you're 55, you'll automatically be invited for a one-off bowel scope screening test, if it's available in your area
  • if you're 60 to 74, you'll automatically be invited to do a home testing kit every 2 years
  • if you're 75 or over, you can ask for a home testing kit every 2 years by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60

If you're younger than 55 but are worried about a family history of bowel cancer, speak to a GP for advice.

Always see a GP if you have symptoms of bowel cancer at any age – do not wait to have a screening test.

You can use the home screening kit in private in your own house. When you receive your kit through the post it will come with instructions on how to use it.

Using the kit is very easy. All you need to do is follow the instructions to take a sample of your stool after you have been to the bathroom.

You do not need to touch your stool with your hands to carry out the test; the kit comes with a helpful tool that you will use instead. 

Once you have taken your sample, you will send it safely and securely through the post using the envelope that comes with your kit. You will not need to put any stamps on the envelope.

The bowel cancer screening test does not diagnose bowel cancer, but it's a simple way to find out if you need further tests.

Remember: no screening test is 100% reliable. There's a chance a cancer could be missed, so always speak to your GP if you have any symptoms of bowel cancer.

After you have sent your sample, your results will be posted to you within two weeks. You will get one of two results:

  • No further tests needed. This means you do not need to do anything else at this time. You will be sent antoher testing kit in 2 years, if you are still under 75 by then.
  • Further tests needed. This means blood was found in your stool sample. It does not mean you definitely have bowel cancer, but it means further tests are needed to help your doctor determine what may have caused the blood.

The NHS will offer you an appointment at a local screening centre (usually in a hospital). This is to discuss having a more detailed examination of your bowel (colonoscopy). The colonoscopy is to see if there is a problem that needs treatment.

A specialist screening practitioner (SSP) will talk with you about your screening result, and answer any questions you have. He or she will discuss colonoscopy with you, and check if you are fit enough for the procedure.

If you are fit for colonoscopy and want to go ahead with the examination, we will arrange an appointment for you. If we do not think you are fit enough for colonoscopy, we may offer you a different investigation such as a computerised tomography (CT) scan (sometimes called a ‘virtual colonoscopy’).

A diagnosis of bowel cancer is unlikely. But if it does happen, we will refer you to a team of specialists who will look after you.

If the cancer is in a polyp removed during a colonoscopy, regular check-ups may be all you need.

The main treatment for bowel cancer is surgery. In some cases, the specialists may offer you chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Not all bowel cancers found at screening are curable. But finding bowel cancer at its earliest stage means the chance of survival is over 90% (Cancer Research UK, 2012. Cancerstats).

For more information about bowel cancer screening call Public Health England's free helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

If you have hearing or speech difficulties you can use the Relay UK service to contact us. Dial 18001 then 0800 707 60 60 from your textphone or the Relay UK app.

You can also:

If you are 75 or over and would like a FIT kit, please call Public Health England's free helpline on 0800 707 60 60. You can ask for a kit every 2 years.

You can also read:

This information is correct as at: 02/03/2021